She walked slowly but sometimes hesitated, stopped, looking back. It would get dark soon.
FIRST PLACE in the SEPARATE WORLDS MONTHLY CONTEST, November/December 2012, by Colin Back on the Ghost Roads
THIRD PLACE TIE in the Boy Have I Got A Story For You Contest, by sdodger, December 13, 2012
FIRST PLACE IN THE TWISTED TALES CONTEST BY Lesley May in 2195747 , January 2013
FEAUTURED in the WDC Newsletter - Mystery: Everything is a Mystery - Editor's Picks, by Lesley May in 2195747 , April 13, 2016
FEATURED in the WDC. Newsletter - Mystery: Forests by octobersun, Editor's Picks, September 4, 2019.
She was walking along Dark Forest Road. The tall trees seemed to want to envelope her with their long branches, maybe trying to caress her. The red and golden leaves danced in the air before falling on the ground, forming brown and purple paths on the grass; the true heart of forests. She moved slowly but sometimes hesitated, and stopped, looking back. It would get dark soon, and the clouds were surfing in the sky, looking for places to hide, and sleep. She needed to find a safe place to hide.
The sun was setting and its warm, orange rays touched her pale face, illuminating her cheeks, and her green eyes, which became yellow, and sadder. Her brown hair and long eyelashes became lighter in color and her cotton, gray dress, changed into a darker shade of white. She smiled when she felt the sun’s warmth on her body, and wrapped her arms around her waist, trying to keep the sun rays from escaping. The energy was so strong, a sense of knowing --- what was ahead of her. So many dreams come true … yet her feet were like two blocks of cement, preventing her from moving; her past haunting her. Why did she have to leave?
She thought of her journey ahead. Places to be, places to go. Would she be able to make it? She never felt so alone; she needed her family right now, but you can’t have everything you want in life, right? She thought about the silence around her; was she afraid of the silence? Was it because --- she was with herself? She heard the cars driving by the road; no one noticed her or stopped to offer her a ride. She took a deep breath, felt the scent of the moss, and the wet soil. The pine trees, the wildflowers and musk penetrated her nose; she inhaled, and continued her walk, straightening the red backpack on her left shoulder.
Jonathan immediately saw her from the distance. He was surprised. What was this young woman doing all alone on the road? It was getting dark, of all things; besides, it was an hour from the nearest town. He slowed down, and slowly came closer to where she was walking. He stretched his arm and opened the right window. Carefully, without trying to scare her, he said:
“Would you like a lift? It might rain again. It’s also becoming late, you know.”
Seeming very surprised, and nervous, she looked at him and stopped. She shook her head. Then, gathering speed, she continued walking, snapping some twigs on her way. An owl hooted at the distance, like an omen.
“Oh, come on. I won’t hurt you. You, on the other hand, might get hurt. Somebody might hurt you. It’s getting dark. Come on; come into the car. I’ll take you wherever you want to go. I promise. Come.”
She stopped again, hesitated, and blinked her eyes. She looked up at the sky’s nightfall and immediately felt the cool breeze. She shivered. Her jacket was in the backpack, though. She looked at him, and again, shook her head vigorously, moving the soft hair on her shoulders. She continued walking, nervous. You should never talk to strangers. Her mother told her so. She told her that before she left the house. She was angry; you should never do things … when you’re angry. She should have stayed home. It was too late to go back.
“Listen. I am sincerely worried about you. I want to help you. I want to give you a ride, that’s all, take you back home, or somewhere safe. Nothing else. I’m not a creepy, crazy weirdo, trust me. My name is Jonathan Mancini, I’m 35, I’m married and have three kids. I’m a Math teacher. I have just accepted a position in Dark Forest High School, one hour from here. Now that you know me, and I’ve introduced myself, we’re not strangers anymore. Come on in, sweetheart, it’s late.”
She stopped, smiled shyly, and nodded. He smiled back, opened the car door and waited for her to walk towards him. He noticed the way she moved, and walked, and how carefully she stepped on the grass, avoiding pine cones and ferns, little berry bushes and wild mushrooms, as if she knew of their existence. The light was fading, creating new shadows, and dark patches around her but she, somehow, had a shining brightness of her own, surrounding her in a kind of a magical way, like an angel. Lights glimmered from the distorted tree hollows. How awkward, and how beautiful, he thought.
The moment she sat on the seat, he took a deep breath - a wild mint scent all around him … or was it of sweet herbs, inside the car. She sighed and placed the backpack on her lap, drumming her pale fingers over it, unsure. He slowly drove on, careful not to upset her. The air inside the car was full of scents blown by the wind from nearby places, maybe gardens, valleys, oceans and mountains, and he felt comfortable and happy for helping her. She looked so frail, vulnerable.
“Hello”, she said.
“Hi there”, he answered.
Something in the way she spoke, her voice --- or was it the sadness in her eyes, and the way she turned her face, staring into the darkness ahead, made him uneasy about this young woman. He didn’t know why, but he felt instinctively that there might be something wrong. Careful not to turn his head too much, Jonathan looked sideways at his passenger. He studied her cotton, gray dress, her small, red backpack, and her white socks and shoes. White socks and shoes? How odd.
“I am happy that you accepted my offer.”
“I was so tired …”
“Have you been walking for a long time?”
“Oh yes, I have."
“Good. I’m happy I stopped.”
“I was surprised that you saw me. Nobody else did; or stopped.”
“Some people are indifferent to what’s around them, you know.”
“Yes, that’s true."
“What’s your name?”
“Why are you all alone, by the road, Edwina Black?"
“I—I was going back.”
“Where do you live?”
“In Dark Forest.”
“Are you going home?”
“Are you in trouble?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you running away from something? Someone?”
“No. Not anymore ...”
“Why, Edwina, why not anymore? You can trust me. Tell me what happened to you, Edwina. Edwina?"
When he noticed that she wasn’t answering his questions, he looked at her. She had fallen … asleep. She was breathing peacefully, in a harmonic rhythm; her head was turned towards the window. She seemed exhausted. Her hair, rolling down in curls, covered her small breasts. Sultriness in the air --- unmistakable; he took a long, deep breath. Jonathan was careful with the road, avoiding holes and branches. The thick atmosphere in the car made him nervous, he wanted to smoke but dared not make noise and wake her up. He drove and looked at her; hypnotized.
Then, he observed that her socks and shoes were muddy; her dress, torn on the side, and there was a zipper missing on her backpack. She had long legs, long fingers and shiny long hair but she was --- so pale. He noticed bruises on both her arms. Was she sick? He looked for other signs – wounds, scars or cuts but there were none. What was her story? He heard her whisper a name in her sleep but it might have been the wind outside as the car gained speed, and as the night’s sky fell over them.
Suddenly, she moved her hand; moaned. She clutched her fingers tight and stretched her arm outwards, touching Jonathan on his right shoulder, as if protecting herself from a blow, from the unknown --- or was it from someone? She woke up; alarmed. She looked outside, at the wet eerie darkness, the tiny raindrops on the wet window, the shadows of trees that looked like monsters, hunting in the night. She turned her face and looked at him. She smiled but it was the saddest grin he ever saw on a human being. The sadness that came from her, in the air, was like a residual wave of icy energy, which grew deep inside his soul and heart and he felt the urgent need to weep, cry, and scream. He looked at her. She looked at him in recognition, then, quickly, as if she had been waiting for it to happen, she looked out of the window, and pointing outside, said:
“There. Look. See?”
“There. Look, over there. Under that tall, dark tree.”
“Yes. I see the tree."
"Right there. Right there. That’s where I died.”
The moment he looked out of the window again, he saw her, right there, standing under a twisted Oak tree, soaking wet and muddy, covered in blood. She whispered something to him but he wasn’t sure if it was Thank You or Frank or Tattoo. When he looked at the passenger seat, he found only muddy dry leaves; she was gone --- vanished into thin air. The hair on the back of his neck stood up. Goosebumps ran all over his whole body like a furious lightning. He managed to open his mouth and screamed as loud as he could and as long as he could but only the night’s stillness heard his hysterical cry --- and so did Edwina Black.